Barton Lynch on Pro Surfing

“They sensed the lunatics were running the asylum and saw the power that we had.”

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It was the same as the situation with Martin Potter the year before: I’d been gifted a media pass to the 2017 Margaret River Pro and found myself standing alongside 1988 world champ Barton Lynch atop the stairs, overlooking Mainbreak, without a single thing to say. Pottz had understandably given short shrift to my efforts in 2016 and I was determined not to make the same mistake this time around. For a minute I let it sit and took a sideways glance at the man. Despite—or perhaps because of—a sprinkling of salt and pepper hair, he looked incredibly fit and vibrant as he stood bouncing on the balls of his surprisingly large feet. In his left hand was a cordless mic that would soon be thrust into the dripping-wet face of John John Florence. The cord of an earpiece snaked its way from the battery pack clipped to the rear of his trousers. I made my move, only to be beaten to the punch by a voice flooding his earpiece at the exact same moment. And just like that he was gone. Two months later, via phone, I had another shot. Finally I thought of something to say. —Anthony Pancia

Anthony Pancia: You’re front and center at the events now. Does pro surfing feel or look like what you’d imagined?

Barton Lynch: When I’m there and when I’m around it, it’s so satisfying because it’s what we dreamt it could be. It’s Rabbit Bartholomew walking to school, visualising a world tour and visualising a day when there was such a thing as a professional surfing, a day when surfers didn’t have to work but rather could travel, surf the best waves in the world, and be paid millions of dollars. That was the dream that my founding fathers had and that’s the reality of it today. So I think that’s the most amazing thing. Of course, there’re elements that can be improved upon, and there always will be. But it’s a pretty amazing show—the performances are incredible, the remuneration and the respect are incredible. It’s what we always dreamed it would be, mate. Bloody beautiful.

AP: Despite all this, as in the breadth and reach of professional surfing, do you think it’s really tapped into the mainstream?

BL: Probably not. Ultimately you’re taking a culture, which in this case is surfing, with all of its elements—the music and fashion and so on—and you’re trying to market it as a sport against all the established sports that have been there for hundreds of years. I feel it’s selling your weakest element.

AP: What about competitors on the tour now? Do you see similarities to the generation you competed against?

BL: I see personalities that remind me of myself. Being a pro surfer is about your personal development. It’s not about your surfing. The first game that you’re playing is with yourself—making sure you’re able to come to game day with your very best performance every time. It’s a very personal, deep, and difficult thing to. You can’t be great at it without growing and learning about yourself. The tour is like a personal development course in many ways.

AP: No matter how much professional surfing changes, winning a world title on the beach at Pipeline, the same day as winning at Pipeline [Lynch won the Billabong Pro, Robbie Page won the actual Pipe Masters that year] has got to be the unbeatable dream. You did that in 1988, but what if you had not won? What do you think your life would have been like?

BL: It’s fair to say the win made every day from that point on easier to live.

AP: And if you had lost?

BL: I don’t know. It would’ve been tougher, that’s for sure. But look, that was my dream and I don’t fail easily. Even to this day, I still like to do things well, mate. Everything I do I want to do to the best of my potential, even if it comes to something like buttering my toast. I’m trying to make sure I’ve got all that butter in the corners and making sure I’ve got a good even spread with the butter perfectly even. So yeah, having that world title and having achieved my childhood dream made the rest of my life more satisfying.

Ultimately you’re taking a culture, which in this case is surfing, with all of its elements—the music and fashion and so on—and you’re trying to market it as a sport against all the established sports that have been there for hundreds of years. I feel it’s selling your weakest element.

AP: What are your memories of that day?

BL: There was a lot of learning for me. The year before [1987] felt like it should have been my year. I was doing great on the tour, then the pressure of leading got to me and I crumbled and fell apart. It ended up being an emotional finish to the year as well, because the last event was at Manly, which was my home beach and I felt like my destiny was winning the world title at home, on my home beach, in front of my family and friends. But I just didn’t have the tools to handle that pressure. That next year I wasn’t thinking world titles. I was still lamenting the near miss from the year before. It taught me my destiny had better things in store for me—I mean, I’d swap winning the world title at Manly for Pipeline any day. It was a dream come true for a young kid. But to take it back a couple of steps, I’d gotten a call before the Hawaiian leg from Keone Downing. He said, “We know you’re coming into the Hawaiian leg and we’d like to make you some boards. Would you want some?” I was like, “Of course, mate.” And I got a 6’10”, a 7’6″, and an 8’0″ that George Downing made. And those three boards were magic. I rode the 7’6″ on the final day but it had very strong edges, which made the rails felt a bit sticky that morning. Clear as day, I remember being over in the schoolyard at Sunset Beach Elementary with George Downing. He had wet and dry sandpaper and I’m watching him spitting on the rail of that board and just fine tuning that edge for me and I’m thinking, “Here is one of the most amazing elders we have in our culture…and he’s helping this young kid from Australia.”

AP: I recall a lot of drama surrounding that day—you, Damien Hardman, and Tom Carroll jostling for the title.

BL: When you’ve been around surfing for as long as I have, you feel like there’re scripts that play themselves out. And part of a professional surfer’s role is to write yourself into the script. If you’re not in the script and they aren’t thinking of you, the chances of you winning are definitely lower. When I was a kid, Rabbit Bartholomew told me there’s always a script and you’ve just got to write yourself into it. The script of that day was that Tom Carroll was supposed to win that title. The only way it didn’t happen was that he did something that they couldn’t have an opinion on. [Carroll committed an interference, which cost him his heat against Todd Holland.] It was a rule, it was black and white—and he did something that wasn’t subjective. All of a sudden the script was out the window, the door was wide open, and that was my opportunity. I managed to sail through and I had my day.

AP: What was your headspace when you eventually did leave the tour?

BL: I was happy with my own pro surfing career and I left the tour wanting to leave it. But I wasn’t in a positive place about professional surfing. I’d done ten years on the ASP board and that was quite a stressful thing to be involved with.

AP: You were often portrayed as an agitator of sorts when it came to how the sport is run. Did you achieve what you set out to accomplish?

BL: I think in some ways I feel like I failed in that department. The start of the Dream Tour was a coup that I was the ringmaster for, I suppose. Initially, the concept was that we were building a sport, and to build a sport you needed to go to city locations, put bleachers up, and get thousands of people there, then have these athletes compete and create a sport. Then you take that sport to market and sell it so you can pay us and we don’t have to get real jobs. Initially I thought it was a great idea, as we all did. But at a certain point the best surfers in the world were starting to get bad reputations, because the free surfing model of a sponsored surfer was starting to grow. The free surfers were surfing great waves and being seen in the best light while the best surfers in the world were surfing the worst waves in the world. And there was this cynicism starting, as to whether they really were the best surfers in the world or not. The momentum of that “spectators on bleachers” mindset had been achieved but the multimedia age was coming into play and we could see that you didn’t need people on the beach. You could simply air this thing and show it to the world without them being there as spectators. The administration of the day was slow to adjust so we conducted the coup. We went to the ASP meeting and sacked the president and the executive director and put in surfer-friendly administrators who understood our ideas and that was the start of the Dream Tour concept.

When you’ve been around surfing for as long as I have, you feel like there’re scripts that play themselves out. And part of a professional surfer’s role is to write yourself into the script.

AP: A regular Night of the Long Knives.

BL: Yeah. I feel like that was a big win. But afterward, when we put in the surfer-friendly administration, the surf-wear companies sensed the lunatics were running the asylum and saw the power that we had. So they had concerns and they came in and took control of the ASP. And then the companies ran the whole thing until the WSL came along. In a way, I felt that was of my own failing. And I surrendered because it was just too hard trying to maintain our dominance and control over the companies.

AP: You appear to be incredibly busy nowadays.

BL: There’s certainly been a lot of travel, certainly this year and for the past…I don’t know…decade. Or even the last 40 years [laughs]. We recently sold our house in Sydney and went on the road and we’ve got a place in Hawaii and we spend three or four months there a year, through the winter season. This year, for example, I spent January, February, and part of March in Hawaii. Then I went to the Gold Coast for the backend of March. In April we went to Margaret River and then to Bells Beach. Then in May we went to the Maldives for three weeks and a couple of days in Sydney. Then we went to Fiji for three weeks and then came back and spent a couple days in Sydney and now we’re in Wanaka, New Zealand, for two months, snowboarding. You’ve got to have passion for what you do. You’ve got to love it. You’ve got to keep doing it. Otherwise you lose it.

AP: We lost Midget Farrelly last year. And you penned an excellent tribute. What did he mean to you?

BL: A lot of humans have passed in life, but his death was one that really affected me. When you consider your own tribe, all the friends and elders within it, Midget was the person that I saw the most. He was quite a hard nut to crack in that he was a strong individual, with some strong opinions, but he kept a lot of it to himself. In the last five to ten years we’d see each other quite often and he opened up to me. He warmed to me and I felt like he trusted me. He seemed to respect me and would tell me stories and share his experiences and knowledge with me. There’d be quite a few surfs where it was just Midget, my daughter, and I out and he would open up and talk to me as a friend and that really meant a lot to me, because I knew that he didn’t do that with everybody. To get that insight and get that knowledge—I felt like I’d been given a gift. I still drive around our area and I can’t believe I’m not going to see him. Every time I drive past a white van, I feel my head twist and turn really fast, thinking it’s him. Then I realize I ain’t gonna see him again.

AP: So what now for Barton Lynch?

BL: I just want to ride as many things as I can before I’m not here anymore. I’ve got a text on my phone from the day before Midget died. [Long pause] He said, “B.L., I need you to connect me with Bob Hurley because I’ve got a week at Tavarua and Bob has the week after and I need two weeks there to get my surfing to where it needs to be.” He told me that was the one area where he felt like he’d made a mistake, in that he’d ridden too many different crafts and not surfed enough perfect waves. [Longer pause, and Lynch begins to well up]. From his hospital bed he said he had one more late drop to make. I told him, “Mate you’ve made plenty before and will make this one.” Sadly he didn’t.